Zoe Saldana can miss me with her oversimplified views on race and gender

Photo: Coqueran/FameFlynet Pictures

We haven’t talked about this at great length yet but I’d been thinking about Zoe Saldana’s comments about race in recent interviews (BET and Allure) she’s done to promote the new Star Trek film. I don’t know. The key problem in Zoe’s comments seems to be rooted in the fact that she doesn’t seem to be surrounded by a cadre of people who speak in a language that engages in the complexity of being brown and woman in America. She’s a young actress and her publicist, undoubtedly, has coached her in the language of comfortability, something that ensures that she gets hired for more acting jobs that transcends race, right?

On race

I find it uncomfortable to have to speak about my identity all of the time, when in reality it’s not something that drives me or wakes me up out of bed everyday. I didn’t grow up in a household where I was categorized by my mother. I was just Zoe and I could have and be anything that I ever wanted to do…and every human being is the same as you. So to all of a sudden leave your household and have people always ask you, “What are you, what are you” is the most uncomfortable question and it’s literally the most repetitive question. I can’t wait to be in a world where people are sized by their soul and how much they can contribute as individuals and not what they look like.

On code/switching:

I literally run away from people that use words like ethnic. It’s preposterous! To me there is no such thing as people of color cause in reality people aren’t white. Paper is white. People are pink, it’s a bit ridiculous when I have to explain to a human being, that is an adult like I am, that looks intelligent but for some reason I have to question his intelligence and explain to him as if he was a two year old, my composition in order for him to say, “Oh I guess I can chill with you, I can work with you.” I will not underestimate a human being and I will not allow another human being to underestimate me. I feel like as a race, that’s a minute problem against the problems we face just as women versus men, in a world that’s more geared and designed to cater towards the male species.

That is a situation that, I spend time thinking about, and working towards ending that, I guess we could talk about that

As black people, it often feels as if it is our job to make white people comfortable around the diversity of black experience and identity, with white people barely meeting us halfway. Because white people in America would like black people to transcend race, lest they be forced to accept the responsibility of looking at their role in perpetuating assumptions about the meaning and value of brown bodies in America.

In an interview for the June issue of Allure Magazine, Zoe Saldana made this statement: 

“…to be an American or black or Latina, it’s arbitrary compared to our battles as women.” The strange logic in Saldana’s remarks above, however, lives in this line of establishing a hierarchy among struggles. That being a woman supercedes race and ethnic identities. If she identifies as woman first, perhaps it somehow erases the fact that she is brown, a blend of heritages that majority white Americans fail to comprehend. That brown is synonymous with something less, inferior to gender struggles. It’s as lightening rod for most feminists of color, certainly for us feminists of the African Diaspora, when such a hierarchy of oppressions is made. It’s why we of a certain generation opted for the term ‘womanist’ in lieu of ‘feminist,’ because it included the narrative of our struggles of having to navigate in this culture with multiple identities. Every day involves a very quick code/switching computation of what my body says in spaces where I’m the singularity–woman or black. I’m darker skinned too, so I don’t get the luxury in majority white spaces to turn off race until I open my mouth and the intonation of my words communicates educated, thoughtful, strength. It’s how we signal that we are not to be fucked with and that we are to be respected for the opinion we offer in professional worlds.

It’s why we are all so enamored with Olivia Pope, with her flaws (in her personal life) and perfection (in her professional life). We know her. Some of us are Olivia; it’s why we root for her. We don’t get to see her on TV very often, but we most definitely have seen her in various professional universes. The camp and high Dynasty salacious drama of Scandal aside, America needs to see a brown woman in command and solving problems in a high-pressure environment. 

I think Zoe though has a limited language to disarm Hollywood powerbrokers by showing that she isn’t some sort of raging brown woman and is easy to work with to gain prominent roles (problematic but sometimes necessary in negotiating the professional environment), while still being true to what she knows of herself and the community she comes from.

Nina Simone lived in a time of barrier breaking and tidal change, you know. Art was her agency. She created an opus of work that reflected the truth of her origins and community, while inescapably aware of what happens to brown bodies when they challenge the power structure. But she did it anyway. Nina was a woman and black, black and woman, brown and black. That’s why it’s such a hard pill to swallow that a brown, woman starlet doesn’t get Nina as so many of us do. I’m not sure why we assume that an actor who immerses herself in a biographical role should somehow, by proxy, become the person they portray. We might be asking for too much. We might be asking Zoe to somehow absorb all of Nina’s songbook and wisdom about blackness in a world which we are still pinching ourselves to remind ourselves is real since we thought it was impossible a generation ago. A world where the first family is black at the start of a second term. Where the tiny but massive ripple that a singular black woman has become the most successful show runner in television today. Where the poet laureate of the United States is a brown woman. Where every week nearly 600,000 tweets on a Thursday night are devoted to our reactions to the actions of a fictional brown woman.

I guess that’s what so disappointing about Zoe’s views on gender and race in light of the backlash against her taking on the role in the Nina Simone biopic. We thought–or hoped at least–that the actor’s worldview would align with the struggles that Nina gave voice to. Simone was part of the soundtrack and consciousness of the Civil Rights Movement. The movement tied to breaking the barriers that limited the movement of brown bodies in the US. This is a deliberate line. It was more than just securing the right to vote and sitting at lunch counters. Those were the large scale examples, but what we’re talking about here is the equal protection under the law for all brown bodies to move about American society without fear (we’re still working on that part). To vote, to be educated, to work, to eat, to drink, to live in a world that you were born in which simultaneously attempted to deny your very existence.

Mississippi Goddam. Saldana’s remarks reveal a naiveté that we as a potential audience of the upcoming film must question. It isn’t about her looks; this is a head game. Not makeup or likeability. She can miss me with her idealized version of the world if it means ignoring the history that even got her the role.

More background here.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

Read more about Syreeta

Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/lexym19/ Lex

    Er… in our rush to criticize Zoe’s naiveness, it may be important to note that Zoe is Latina and this essay is clearly from an American perspective. Example: “I think Zoe though has a limited language to disarm Hollywood powerbrokers by showing that she isn’t some sort of raging brown woman…” – there is not such thing as an “angry black woman” in Zoe’s (and my) world. Culturally speaking, Latinos aren’t encouraged to restrain ourselves emotionally like American white dominant culture dictates.

    Zoe was born to a Puerto Rican mom and Dominican father. From age 10 -17 she lived in the Dominican Republic. The racial dynamics there are not the same as here – they are much more mixed and it’s my humble opinion that racism, while it does exists in Latino culture, was not nearly as institutionalized as it was here in the U.S.

    That being said, Zoe does need to check her privelege a little bit but she should also be allowed to speak to her personal experience, too. While I can see why her comments stung, especially after the Nina Simone casting, we should also be careful not to judge people on our own, somewhat limited scale.

    Long story short: let’s all try to understand one another! Woot! :-)

  • http://feministing.com/members/ericafranz/ Erica

    I don’t particularly agree with the author’s interpretation of Zoe Saldana’s interview statements. What I took away from them was the idea that Zoe was raised in a way that did not include learning to identify herself as being inferior in any way due to being a certain race, color or gender. She simple was herself, Zoe, as she put it.

    And now as a grown up she has little patience or understanding around why anyone else needs to categorize her as a certain race, color or gender.

    But in no way did I read her simplifying the racial struggle, simple expressing that in her opinion she is no different from anyone else due to race, color or gender – we are all people, all people are colored in some way (pink, brown, yellow, etc), end of story.

    If everyone felt this way there wouldn’t be a racial divide, would there?

    • honeybee

      That was how I took it too until I read the article here. I still want to give her the benefit of the doubt though. And as an Asian myself I emphasize with some of her thoughts on this.

  • http://feministing.com/members/oilbug/ Oil

    “As black people, it often feels as if it is our job to make white people comfortable around the diversity of black experience and identity.”

    There are two possibilities:

    1) Mz ‘Reeta has no grasp whatsoever on the concept of irony.
    2) Mz ‘Reeta has a perfect grasp on the concept.

  • http://feministing.com/members/eleanorbitchby/ Eleanor

    I agree with a lot in your article and also that Zoe Saldana does not seem to have the same grasp on language that many in this community do. Most of what she said was confusing and naive. However, I find it odd that in so many criticisms I have read no one can relate to her experience and frustration of being questioned “What are you?” I am a mixed-race and racially-ambiguous person and I have had that question asked so blunt to me for most of my life on a weekly, if not daily basis. At school, at work, taking a walk, at the gas station, it doesn’t matter. And it can be down-right infuriating to have to explain my heritage and often defend and argue (because once I answer people assume I’m lying) to strangers, new friends, co-workers, teachers, doctors, the list goes on. And the incredulity when I respond is almost always the same because I didn’t fit into the box that people wanted to place me. So yeah, I understand her frustration with that question, “What are you?”

  • http://feministing.com/members/juliewashere88/ Julie

    So merely by being a racial minority, she is required to be a spokesperson for it?